Monday, May 10, 2010


I'm a total sucker for the underdog. I don't even care what the domain is-- sports, politics, games, academics, business, love, war-- if there is an odds-on favorite, I'm pretty much guaranteed to root for his opponent. As many people have noted, 2010 is shaping up to be the Year of the Underdog, beginning with the election of our first black President, followed by the New Orleans Saints' unlikely SuperBowl victory, then one of the most nail-biting, heart-wrenching, buzzer-annihilating Big Dances of NCAA basketball history and, in the entertainment world, the Academy Awards also pitched in this year by awarding Best Director/Best Picture to Katheryn Bigelow and "The Hurt Locker." Even when there wasn't an identifiable "underdog" to root for, several times this year already we have been able to indulge in that oh-how-the-mighty-have-fallen schadenfreude. (See: Tiger Woods, BP, John Edwards, Jay Leno, Goldman Sachs, Mark Sanford, etc.) Given that underdogs qua "underdogs" are always a pretty bad bet-- because, unless something extraordinary happens, they usually LOSE-- our affection for them is pretty hard to explain. Why do we love the underdog?

Sociologists Jimmy Frazier and Eldon Snyder, in a paper entitled "The Underdog Concept in Sports," tried to explain this counterintuitive phenomenon using a little bit of emotional economics. Frazier and Snyder speculate that sports fans are always looking to maximize excitement (pleasure). So, the self-interested sports fan might root for the underdog because a close game is always more enjoyable than a blowout. Or, what is more likely, the sports fan might root against the odds because the emotional "payoff" of a underdog win far outweighs the emotional payoff of a win by the favorite, and the same is true of an underdog loss vs. a loss by the favorite. That is to say, the achievement of the unexpected win is exponentially more pleasurable (and the unexpected loss is exponentially more painful), while the expected loss or expected win is emotionally neutral because it's only, well, just what was supposed to happen. It's like Pascal's wager (or maybe it's like the opposite of Pascal's wager, I'm not sure). Either way, Frazier and Snyder's account suggests that it's a matter of simple hedonistic/utilitarian calculus.

I think that's probably half of the explanation, but I am inclined to agree with Daniel Engber who argues (in his Slate article "The Underdog Effect") that some of us believe our rooting for the underdog adds an extra variable to the calculus of Sports Equity. Like monkeys and dogs (or so it is hypothesized), we might have a psychologically-hardwired aversion to inequity. We want games to be "fair," and disproportionate odds lead us to believe that the contests under consideration "unfairly" lack equity, even when that inequity is the result of something like "natural talent." According to Joseph Vendello et al (in "The Appeal of the Underdog"), we are more inclined to attribute "talent" and "intelligence" as character traits of the favorites, but we tend to think that the underdogs have more "hustle" and "heart." We want hustle and heart to matter as much as talent and intelligence, so our rooting for the underdog is a manner of passive-aggressively forcing that to be the case. That is, we underdog-lovers "justify" our rooting-against-the-odds by fiddling with the Sports Equity calculus a bit. Pace Frazier and Snyder, I think that there is a little irrational part of the underdog-lover that doesn't really believe s/he is rooting "against" the odds. S/he just thinks the odds-makers haven't taken into account all the variables (like hustle, heart and, of course, my passionate and heartfelt cheering at home in front of the TV).

Nietzsche would say that we root for the underdog out of ressentiment, because what we share with the underdog is the psychology of the weak. When the underdog wins, it's not only an actual "physical" victory, but also a moral one. This is probably why we tend to lionize underdogs, making of them posterchildren for the Good, the True, the Beautiful. This is, after all, the point of the David and Goliath story as a morality tale: it doesn't make any difference that you're a giant and I only have one measly stone and a homemade slingshot if I also have God on my side. One thing that disrupts this Nietzschean interpretation, I think, is our love of the underdog in the form of the antihero. Antiheroes are underdogs of a sort, too. They're not heroes, after all, and I think we may root for antiheroes for the same equity-desiring reasons that we root for more "heroic" underdogs. (See my previous posts "Why Do We Love the Antihero?" and "Antiheroes (Again)".) What's interesting about the antihero, I think, is that we don't root for the antihero because we hate the strong for being strong (which is what Nietzsche would suggest is going on when we root for the underdog), but we root for the antihero, perhaps, because sometimes we hate the strong for (really) being weak, for masking their weakness as strength.

Finally, and perhaps the most interestingly, it appears that our tendency too root for the underdog is more abstract than it is tied to any particular underdog. That is, Frazier and Snyden's studies showed that, unless we are beholden to some team for sentimental reasons, we tend to root for "the underdog" whomever that may be in a particular contest. And it often happens that, in the course of a single game, the abstract placeholder of "underdog" can be occupied by both sides of a single contest. (For example, when two #5 seeds in the NCAA basketball tourney are playing each other, fans tend to root for whichever team is behind in the score, which sometimes means that they change teams mid-game.) This seems to indicate that underdog support is something more like what I want to call "underdogmatism," a rigorous (even if irrational) insistence on the appearance of equity in the game combined with a dogmatic (even if irrational) belief that the participation of fans can somehow contribute to its reality.

At any rate, go dawgs!


anotherpanacea said...

I think you've just explained why I don't really like watching sports or "rooting" for strangers: this whole emotional economics approach just makes me feel oddly mercenary, and the magical thinking it engenders is even less rational.

That's especially true when you're "rooting" for a regional favorite: I'm just so aware of how contingent it would be to have a preference for, say, the Redskins. Then I get all meditative about signalling group membership and don't enjoy the game.

I think Nietzsche captures the signalling sense of this problem well: it seems like "rooting" for the underdog is kind of like signalling to oneself that one is caring and sensitive to vulnerability and weakness.

In a sense, this signalling goes through all the way to antiheroes, because in the cosmic scheme of things, who's a bigger underdog than the Anti-Christ? If there's a divine order where messianic prophecies come true, than the Dexters and Zarathustras of the world are destined to lose.

I think this is what you're getting at by talking about "hating the strong for (really) being weak," but I wonder: does this description of the phenomenon help us to figure out whether to "root" for the underdog? Is this a practice we ought to root out of ourselves or embrace? (I'm thinking especially of the distinct phenomenologies of Nietzsche and Levinas.)

MVP said...

I think it's odd that somehow your credibility is suddenly diminished when you root for a powerhouse. Yes, I like Duke and Manchester United, but I also like the White Sox and Carolina Panthers. Then again, it's just bar room politique.

Expect a postcard soon!

DOCTOR J said...

@AnPan: I agree that the "emotional economics" approach makes all sports-fandom seem mercenary... that's in part why I think it's only half the story... if that much, even.

I think the phenomenon of rooting for a "regional favorite" (in sports and politics, at least) is a different phenomenon, which may or may not have anything to do with the underdog (depending on which "region" you're from, of course). Even still, I don't object in pricinple to the kind of civic pride that is engendered by regionalism. One of the things I loved the most about Philadelphis was it's passionate love/hate relationship with its sports teams. It was a way of "being" a Philaldephian. On the other hand, for every Eagles or Red Sox or Cubs fan, there's also the Ole Miss fan, who may or may not being using the "Rebels" as a proxy for (Confederate) rebel fandom.

I'm inclined to say that even if Nietzsche is right-- even if rooting for the underdog *is* a way of signalling to oneself that one is caring and sensitive to vulnerability and weakness-- what's wrong with that? I mean, I know what Nietzsche would say is wrong with that, but why are you (AnPan) against that? I would have pegged you as more on the side of Levinas than Nietzsche, sports fan or not.

DOCTOR J said...

@MVP: That video link is an interesting contribution to the discussion. "There are no Cinderellas" is obviously meant to suggest that when the underdog wins, it is becacuse s/he was somehow *misjudged*, underrated, underappreciated. Underdogs are always-already "becomig legendary," right? I mean, isn't that why all the clips in the video are of "underdog" victories?

I'll keep an eye out for my postcard. When do you return?

anotherpanacea said...

This is interesting stuff, and I certainly don't have a worked out view. I'm asking questions, not taking a position. Two reasons I can think of to reject underdogmatism:

1. It's inconsistent, as you describe in the two 5th seed teams. So in that sense, we recognize that underdogmatism is an attachment to loss-as-such, and it might be something we reject because what we really want is the *structural* underdog to win. (As with an African-American presidential candidate: it would have been odd to vote for McCain because towards the end he seemed like the underdog.) So we should at least distinguish momentary upsets from the true underdogs, and underdogmatism might not be up to that task.

2. As an affective strategy, "rooting" for underdogs might actually be supplanting trying to prevent underdogs: as a kind of melancholy over-investment in loss, "the poor shall always be with you," etc. Being attached to structural losers might mean that we'd prefer these losers stay losers (let's say, the subaltern or least advantaged) and that they adopt losing strategies rather than dominant strategies. If we'll withdraw our support the moment things look up for such folks, we might end up doing more harm then good, making ourselves feel "fair" and "equitable" while actually preserving injustice. I think that's actually a bigger danger in politics than in sport, but don't you wonder sometimes about Red Sox fans? It's almost like winning the World Series was a disappointment!

But please read this as reflective, caveated, just-for-the-sake-argument. I dunno answers: it's an interesting question, is all.

Brunson said...

Synchronicity, as I just watched Mystery, Alaska, which I always enjoyed because the underdog home team loses, and yet plays well enough to earn the respect of the professionals. Certainly the need for an 'appearance of equity' is an interesting component of our love of dramatic agon. Looking at it from the other side, it is often considered shameful for the overdog to blow out an inferior opponent.

Finally, the specificity of the phrase 'root for the underdog' brings out my inner lexicographer:

root (v1.) "dig with the snout," 1538, from M.E. wroten "dig with the snout," from O.E. wrotan, from P.Gmc. *wrotanan (cf. O.N. rota, Swed. rota "to dig out, root," M.L.G. wroten, M.Du. wroeten, O.H.G. ruozian "to plow up"), cognate with L. rodere "to gnaw" (see rodent). Associated with the verb sense of root (n.). Extended sense of "poke about, pry" first recorded 1831. Phrase root hog or die "work or fail" first attested 1834, Amer.Eng. (in works of Davey Crockett, who noted it as an "old saying"). Reduplicated form rootin' tootin' "noisy, rambunctious" is recorded from 1875.

root (v2.) "cheer, support," 1889, Amer.Eng., originally in a baseball context, probably from root (v.1) via intermediate sense of "study, work hard" (1856).

We root for those who are themselves rooting for a victory hidden from plain view. Conversely, the Old Norse roots of this word relate it to 'rout' and 'roust' - in particular, from words referring to the roaring of the sea or the bellowing of (a group of) animals (cf. rootin' tootin').

Emma B. said...

There's underdogs, and then there's Kanellos, the Greek protest dog!

John said...

Isn't rooting for someone or something a way of playing at participation when participation is really excluded? I would say for this reason that the domain matters, games and sports seem to take place in a closed "court" and represent in a certain sense a closed system. I mean only that the rules are established, the conditions for play are set in advance. But with war and the economy, it becomes a problem to speak of rules of play and a field in which the contest unfolds, doesn't it? Isn't the establishing of a rule an action by one or more parties in the contest (and an expression of their power)? Aren't even norms of, say, international law continually contested? I am thinking of Bataille's kind of Hegelian line of thought, in an economic context. He states in The Accursed Share that the economy must be understood from a general standpoint if it is to be understood at all.

As to underdogs, and to Paul vs. Nietzsche, I imagine that the true underdog would have to "play" outside the contest, and would be impossible to root for.